Much More than a War

Paul Wolfowitz
U.S. Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz in Washington, March 11, 2003 (Photo: Stephen Jaffe/AFP).

Victoria “Torie” Clarke, 43, a resolute and strong-willed woman always dressed in bright colors, decided last year that the war on Iraq should be broadcast with all care to detail. “This story deserves to be told,” said Clarke. Hundreds of journalists from all over the world and of every ideological stripe would flank the troops at the front; an army of reporters would feed the world thousands of images and stories every day. Perhaps unwittingly, Clarke, U.S. assistant secretary of defense for public affairs, introduced a key element into a war that aimed to change the face of the Earth. The war on Iraq would be much more than just a war. This single massive show of strength would be a testing ground, a message, and a military revolution condensed into one. A show that in just 20 intense days came to Baghdad.

These have been the 20 key days of the “new American century,” and no one can have escaped the kernel of the events as told by the media. Beyond the horror, the chaos, the casualties, and the misery, the hatred for or sympathy toward U.S. foreign policy, one essential element should by now be imprinted on the collective subconscious: The U.S. Army is unrivaled in the world. Washington can dictate its law wherever and whenever it wants.

In September 2002, when Clarke presented her plan for “embedding” journalists with U.S. troops to her chief, Donald Rumsfeld, European and Arab governments viewed a possible invasion of Iraq as a threat that diplomacy could dispel. The Pentagon and the White House, however, had already drawn up their plans. Rumsfeld, with his deputy secretary and chief ideologue, Paul Wolfowitz, had been devising his strategy for more than four years. As early as 1998 a group of Republican hawks, far removed from power then and gathering under the Project for the New American Century, devised their “concentric circles” theory, also dubbed the “domino theory,” the Vietnam-era theory dusted off to fit the aim of turning Iraq into a springboard for a wide-ranging transformation of the Middle East.

Devising a military strategy to complement the theory, however, was a more complex process. Gen. Tommy Franks, in command of U.S. troops during the Afghan war, remained loyal to the so-called Powell Doctrine. Developed for the first Gulf  War with the aim of avoiding a Vietnam rerun, the Powell Doctrine called for an overwhelming display of force in numbers and technology to combat the enemy.

To ensure the success of his “concentric circles” theory, Rumsfeld had to first debunk the doctrine of his colleague and rival, Secretary of State Colin Powell. At play was the United States’ 21st-century hegemony as envisaged by him and all the hawks in charge of President Bush’s ideological guidance. At any time, Washington would be able to deploy anywhere in the world a force impressive not for its size but for its destructive power, its technological superiority, and its aggressiveness. Nuclear deterrence would be replaced by intimidation, threats, and pre-emptive attacks.

Then Clarke’s proposal appeared. Rumsfeld, despite his traditional aversion to the media—he had tried to wage the Afghan war as secretively as possible, convinced that the best battles were the invisible ones—decided it was a good idea. A group of reporters would join every regular unit on the battlefield.

Reporters started their training program when the United Nations Security Council was still debating Resolution 1441. Rumsfeld, a former wrestler, Air Force pilot, and successful businessman and politician in the habit of thinking big, saw the endless flow of fragmented but more or less reliable information as a means to counter Iraqi propaganda. It would also show the world that the U.S. Army did not just have virtually magical technological resources, but was also undaunted by the prospect of suffering and incurring casualties.

Burying Vietnam once and for all required more than a sweeping victory, such as that of 1991, or the ousting of a regime as miserable as that of the Taliban in Afghanistan. It required the demise of the military doctrine set forth by retired Gen. Colin Powell in response to the Vietnam fiasco and widely endorsed by still-active generals. It was time to do away with massive troop deployments, such as the more than half-million soldiers in 1991, and the excessive fear of bloodshed the U.S. Army exhibited in Somalia in 1993.

Following the Sept. 11 attacks, U.S. public opinion was thirsty for venge-ance, punishment, and victory over any enemy and at any price, regardless of casualties on any side. The social mood, so different from the relaxed and frivolous benevolence prevailing during the prosperous 1990s, was perfect to lay the cornerstone for construction of  “the new American century.”

To ensure that the 21st century was as “American” as the 20th, the United States, and in particular its president, would rise up as the world’s judge and policeman. Assuming the judgment role seemed simple: discrediting or sidelining the U.N. Security Council, which had achieved some prominence following the collapse of the Soviet Union; boycotting the International Criminal Court; and rejecting any treaty limiting the field of action of the “hyperpower” would be more than enough.

George W. Bush embarked on this strategy as soon as he stepped into the White House. In his speech before the U.N. General Assembly in 2002, Bush basically issued an ultimatum calling the organization to either act or accept its irrelevance. His words opened up many fronts: disarmament and regime change in Iraq, transforming the international order in the Middle East.
Becoming the world’s policeman, meanwhile, required an overhaul of the U.S. Army, a task considerably more complex than fending off the so-called “international community.” Bush chose Donald Rumsfeld as defense secretary because Rumsfeld had well-defined ideas—as opposed to the president’s mere “instincts”—and an in-depth knowledge of the inner workings of the Pentagon and the military indus-trial complex. It was a knowledge that would allow him to impose a true revolution upon the generals and to recast the entire structure of the armed forces. Bush wanted to cut down spending on infantry, armored divisions, and artillery to focus on a light and basically airborne force. A tremendous firing capacity would make up for the reduced numbers of troops.

Rumsfeld, who had been defense secretary under President Ford, got no sympathy from the military top brass. In the early stages of the Bush administration, he barely managed to introduce any changes. In fact, Pentagon spending shot up: Rumsfeld was forced to continue financing armored car divisions and armament programs he considered obsolete while increasing the budget for airborne equipment such as helicopters, spy planes, and satellite systems.

The Afghan war was a successful but “limited” experiment for Bush’s defense secretary. When he charged Gen. Tommy Franks with drafting a plan to invade Iraq, he came up against the Powell Doctrine again. Rumsfeld instructed the general to limit the operation to 60,000 troops. Gen. Franks, however, said he would need at least 200,000 troops to carry it through effectively. Colin Powell became personally involved in the confrontation, supporting Franks’ demands. Gradually the Army’s position prevailed in the Pentagon, and the Defense Department agreed to deploy 200,000 men for the mission. On one condition, however: Ground troops would be deployed gradually and reinforcements would depend on necessity. Ankara’s refusal on the eve of the war to allow the Americans to open a northern front from Turkish territory came almost as a blessing for Rumsfeld: Only a limited number of troops could be involved in the march on Baghdad.

In this context, and with troops battered by violent sandstorms hindering U.S. progress in the early stages of the war, military commanders in the southern Iraqi desert started complaining about the shortage of soldiers and armored cars. It was their way of getting back at the defense secretary for trimming the invading force, for his blind faith in airpower, and for his lack of interest in ground operations. Those were critical days for Rumsfeld, who appeared more biting and bad tempered than ever. Floods of information made the newborn conflict seem to be stretching endlessly in time. As in the Afghan war, a few hours without any major successes were enough for comparisons with Vietnam to be splashed all over the media.

Perhaps Rumsfeld did hesitate then. Victory was certain, but it would be almost worthless if “embedded” journalists failed to convey the desired message: a hands-down success with a limited number of troops and an overwhelming firing capacity. The deployment of 100,000 more troops in Iraq on March 27 was conducted as quietly and discreetly as possible, in fear that it could be interpreted as a victory for the generals over Rumsfeld’s position. With a surge of news on fierce Iraqi resistance, March 27 was the toughest day for the Pentagon’s civilian hawks. After a short pause that allowed fresh supplies to reach the front line and the troops to get some much-needed rest, the advance gathered speed. When the 3rd Infantry Division arrived at Baghdad’s outskirts on April 2, the controversy all but vanished. Rumsfeld breathed a big sigh of relief.

Pitting the generals against the civilian commanders, this small war within the war finally turned the tables in Rumsfeld’s favor and forced a marked change within the Pentagon. From the start a large majority of the U.S. public supported the real war. By comparing Saddam Hussein to Adolf Hitler and depicting the Iraqi dictator as a grave threat to worldwide security, Washing-ton’s message, in spite of its inherent contradiction, made deep inroads in U.S. society. If Hussein really was so dangerous, however, why wasn’t he using chemical and biological weapons? Why were his troops being quashed on all fronts? Not many posed this kind of question. And only a handful of avid Web surfers and viewers of foreign television channels ever had visual evidence of the actual horrors of war.

In the United States, people lost no sleep over the tragedy of Ali Ismaeel Abbas, the 12-year-old boy who lost his family and both arms to a bomb. Most of the media chose to ignore his story. From Omaha or Kansas City, the war was a much sweeter and simpler affair than the conflict the Europeans and Arabs were avidly following on their screens. It was a war of American heroes against “death squadrons,” a war of devoted army doctors attending the civilian population, a war that peaked with the rescue of U.S. prisoner of war Jessica Lynch. There was no need for censorship. The media itself chose to brush over the bloodier images, offering their audience what it wanted to see. Perhaps a longer conflict would have encouraged a gradual change in the U.S. media’s war coverage. Perhaps the inevitably complex military occupation of Iraq, which will certainly be long and dangerous, will offer U.S. viewers a more comprehensive view of the conflict.

The great plan leading to the “American century” has only just begun. There are many questions beyond the occupation of Iraq and the establishment of a pro-American government in Baghdad. Colin Powell stresses that Iraq was a “special” case and that the United States does not intend to invade other Middle Eastern countries. Powell, however, has been sidelined in Bush’s administration. Turkey’s lack of cooperation with Washington’s war plans is viewed as Colin Powell’s personal failure. For some time, moreover, the world’s most prominent diplomat has curtailed his trips abroad, as if he needed to stay in Washington to keep an eye on the Pentagon’s hawks. In the meantime, an increasingly empowered Rumsfeld does not hesitate to threaten Iran and Syria.